Our Passions

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Working in the tradition of John Locke, Edmund Burke has a mechanistic understanding of how our human passions operate and what purpose they serve.

Burke argues that our most important aesthetic experiences are either of beauty or the sublime, and he suggests that these emotions can be traced back to feelings of pleasure or pain. Burke further suggests that with pain we are concerned about our individual welfare, whereas pleasure is primarily found in our dealings with society:

A diagram showing how Edmund Burke traces the sublime and the beautiful back to pleasure and pain

For Burke, the sublime has less social utility than beauty, though as we’ll see, the sublime may make us reverent towards powerful people and objects. Beauty, on the other hand, draws us together as social animals, most obviously through love and courtship.

Pleasure and Pain

Burke reduces our primary aesthetic experiences to just two: the beautiful and the sublime. He doesn’t think that other emotions (e.g., curiosity) are as powerful.

Whereas beauty gives us pleasure, the sublime includes an element of pain. Here is how Burke defines the sublime:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible [terrifying], or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Pain is thus felt more strongly than pleasure, and we can find pain, death, and danger sublime when we enjoy them at a distance.

In focusing on pleasure and pain, Burke follows Locke, but he does not agree that pleasure is the absence of pain, and vice versa. Burke suggests that there is a state of “indifference” in between, a neutral feeling where we don’t fully experience either.

Of course our feeling of indifference may be affected by prior emotions. After pleasure “we fall into a soft tranquility, which is tinged with the agreeable colour of the former sensation.” Similarly, after pain we feel sobered and still experience a sense of awe. Despite these lingering feelings, pleasure and pain are distinct sensations.

Burke does allow for two exceptions. First, when we do enjoy a removal of pain we should call that delight, and distinguish it from positive pleasure. Much later in the essay, Burke will claim that the sublime is actually a form of delight, since we don’t experience any real pain. Early on he’s not very clear about this.

Secondly, when pleasure ceases, we may feel grief. However, grief is not pure pain, especially since we often indulge in it. It actually has a lot in common with pleasure!

Here is an updated version of our diagram:

Diagram showing how Edmund Burke argues that there is a state of indifference between pleasure and pain.

Our Social Passions

Burke spends quite a bit of time discussing our various social passions, even though some of this material is a digression from his interest in beauty and the sublime. Perhaps it is too challenging to create an entire aesthetic theory out of just two concepts!

In any case, the passions that belong to society are divided into two categories: the society of the sexes and society in general. The first of these is limited to love between two people. What motivates people to start a courtship is beauty. However, Burke is quick to differentiate between love and lust. People are not like animals in heat, who copulate whenever the urge takes them. People use their reason to control their urges, and they do not experience pain or uneasiness when they cannot experience sexual pleasure. Similarly, some lovers may go mad, but love cannot be called painful. In short, Burke seems rather skeptical about the power of love!

When it comes to society in general, we again experience love for other beings, just as we are drawn to all kinds of beauty. Even though solitude can be enjoyable, we usually much prefer the company of others. Burke further argues that our social bonds are strengthened through sympathy, imitation, and ambition.


Burke argues that sympathy is primarily a social virtue, in that it compels us to show charity to others. We might object that the association with pleasure is debatable, as we feel sympathy when others suffer and feel pain. So is sympathy pleasurable or painful? Burke tends to avoid this problem, although he does note in passing that when sympathy makes us worried about our own self-preservation, it can be sublime.

Humans beings are strangely drawn to tragedy. Our sympathy further increases when the sufferer is a noble person. That said, Burke takes issue with the idea that that we enjoy tragedies because we are free from danger ourselves, and because we reason that it is just a fiction. Burke suggests that these kinds of reasons are made up after the fact, and that our passions and emotions occur without much reasoning. Sympathy is natural and instinctive.

The more real the tragedy, the more we are drawn to it. Burke writes that if during a play someone shouted that a criminal was to be executed next door, everyone would flock to see it.


Society also functions through imitation. Much of education consists of copying the behaviour and lessons of our teachers: “It is by imitation far more than by precept, that we learn everything.”

Presumably, this is also why we enjoy mimesis in art. In painting, for instance, some objects are pleasing because of the artist’s skill in imitation, not because of the worthiness of the object. We might admire a bowl with fruit in a still-life, or a cottage and dunghill in a landscape. These kinds of paintings will never be sublime, but they might be beautiful and pleasing.


Ambition drives us to outdo others, and so we create great works of art. The urge to compete is essential to the proper workings of society.

Here too, Burke’s classification is somewhat artificial. He admits that ambition also affects us in sublime moments, when there is “a sort of swelling and triumph,” as we feel pleased with ourselves. Similarly, when we see awesome objects, then our minds claims “some part of the dignity and importance of the things which it contemplates.” In other words, we identify with great things.

Since power is a key feature of the sublime, and since the sublime involves admiration and respect, it seems that the ambition to be great should be associated equally with the sublime. Is not Milton’s Satan sublime in part because of his ambition? Or what about those who through great effort achieve success? If we want to be critical, then, we might complicate our earlier diagram as follows:

A diagram showing how Edmund Burke categories the passions in relation to society and the individual


Diagramming Burke’s ideas helps to clarify his argument, but the experience of reading him is much less streamlined. Burke is not super organized, and he often digresses. Perhaps this shows the challenge he faces. Has he simplified our passions too much? Can we create such clear distinctions between pleasure and pain, between beauty and the sublime? Where does a genre like tragedy fit in? Is Hamlet not a sublime play, even though Burke views sympathy as first of all a social virtue?

Burke also struggles to reconcile different visions of what it means to be human. On the one hand, he views our emotions as caused automatically, so that the body is a kind of machine that simply reacts to outside forces. Aesthetic experiences happen to us. We do not reason about how far removed from danger we are, or think carefully about whether something is fictional or not. On the other hand, aesthetics involves an element of cool reflection, as we consider carefully whether a work of art is realistic and represents nature accurately. Similarly, human beings act rationally when in love, and should not simply lust after beauty.

Despite these difficulties, Burke sketches out a dramatic contrast between the effects of pleasure and pain. In our next lesson we’ll see how he differentiates the sublime from the beautiful.

Work Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful with Several Other Additions. The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 12 volumes, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm